Russian request to extradite Chechen exile is turned down

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Russia's request to extradite Chechen exile Akhmed Zakayev for alleged war crimes and terrorism has been thrown out by a London court.

Mr Zakayev was freed yesterday after a judge ruled that he was likely to be tortured if he returned to face trial in Moscow. Russian authorities responded by accusing the court of "double standards" and politicising a criminal trial.

The Government's decision to authorise the extradition hearing has been criticised by human rights groups, which claimed that Mr Zakayev was being sacrificedto soften President Vladimir Putin's opposition to the Iraq war.

Mr Zakayev, an actor turned activist, was supported by several prominent public figures, including Vanessa Redgrave, who offered sureties of £50,000 for his release on bail after he was held by Scotland Yard on an international warrant. The Russian government had objected to the decision to grant Mr Zakayev bail and compared it to allowing Osama bin Laden to walk free.

Senior District Judge Timothy Workman, sitting at Bow Street magistrates court in central London, said that the Russian justice system could not be trusted to protect the life of Mr Zakayev, a former chief negotiator for the last elected Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov.

After listening to testimony from former Russian prisoners, Judge Workman said: "If the Russian authorities are prepared to resort to torturing witnesses, there is a substantial risk that Mr Zakayev would be subjected to torture. I am satisfied that such punishment and detention would be by the reason of his nationality and political opinions."

The Russian Prosecutor Generals' Office, which once described Mr Zakayev as the country's most wanted man, said: "Unfortunately, what we have here are double standards. This is another demonstration of the division of terrorists into good or bad.

"We have presented evidence that Zakayev was guilty of serious crimes, including terrorism, organising illegal armed units, banditry, premeditated murder and hostage taking." A senior Russian diplomat said: "So it is alright for America and Britain to carry out their 'war on terror', and they want our support. But we cannot expect any help back."

Mr Zakayev said after the hearing: "We got a fair decision by the courts which gives me the opportunity, and my friends, to continue the fight against this regime. If they, my friends, hadn't believed me, I wouldn't have been able to prove to the court that it was all lies.

"But we can only claim complete victory when we can finish with this criminal regime of President Putin. We will continue to fight and we will win."

Mr Zakayev said that after clarifying his status regarding travel with Interpol, he would continue his efforts to "work for peace and stop the madness in Russia and Chechnya. The Russian Federation, he said had been shown up as "liars and torturers".

Ms Redgrave said: "This means an important step for democracy, for true law - not law based on false evidence with false witnesses. We hope this will put an end to the intense suffering of the Chechen people and for their rights to make their own decisions, to allow their own leadership without intimidation."

Gareth Peirce, Mr Zakayev's solicitor, stressed that it was the decision of the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to allow the extradition proceedings.

"He had all the evidence he could have," she said. "But we are grateful that he was not brave enough to make that decision because this case ... is an unique opportunity for the Chechen people to have a finding made in court in another country about the status of the war, status of the refugees, status of the atrocities being inflicted on the Chechen people."

Amnesty International welcomed the judgment. "Torture and mistreatment in Russian police cells are common and Mr Zakayev would have been particularly vulnerable," it said.

"In the last two years two high-profile Chechen prisoners have died shortly after beginning prison terms."

* A former Iranian diplomat accused of masterminding a terrorist attack in Argentina will not face extradition from Britain. The Home Office said it had not received enough evidence to proceed with the case against Hade Soleimanpour, who was arrested in Durham on 21 August on an Argentine warrant. Argentina claims he helped plan the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured more than 100.